The psalmist, Asaph, wondered who can stand before the Almighty in Psalm 76. Thought to be written in response to God’s defeat of King Sennacherib’s Assyrian army (2 Kings 19:35ff) because of the title the Septuagint gives it (“A song for the Assyrians”), it is a song of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of his people and praise for his awesome power.
Acknowledging that God “is known” in Judah and “his name is great in Israel” (76:1), Asaph declares that Jehovah’s “abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion” (76:2). Salem (literally, “habitation of peace”) was the name originally given to Jerusalem; it was the city ruled by the priest of God Most High, Melchizedek during Abraham’s day (cf. Gen. 14:18ff; Heb. 7:1ff). Asaph is declaring that God is with His people. “There,” at Zion, the Lord “broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war” (76:3). This is likely a description of Sennacherib’s defeat. Asaph also describes the invading army’s failure soon afterwards in the psalm: “The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil; they sank into sleep; all the men of war were unable to use their hands. At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned” (76:5-6).
What was Asaph’s response to the divine rescue of the Jews in their hour of greatest need? “Glorious are you, more majestic than the mountains of prey” (76:4). The Assyrians might have encamped in the surrounding mountains or hills, thinking to lay siege to God’s city yet only to find themselves the prey instead of the predators. The psalmist, and the Jews by singing this psalm in worship, were giving the glory to their Deliverer.
The Almighty’s power was then acknowledged with respect and awe. “But you, you are to be feared! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused? From the heavens you uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still, when God arose to establish judgment, to save all the humble of the earth” (76:7-9). The anger of God destroyed 185,000 soldiers in one night. On the day of judgment, his righteous wrath will be “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18; cf. 2 Thess. 1:7-9). Yet for “the humble,” the ones “who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality,” he will “save” and “give eternal life” (76:9; Rom. 2:7). So yes, Asaph was very much correct when he wrote, “But you, you are to be feared!” Fearing God is necessary. It is “the beginning of knowledge” and “wisdom” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; cf. 15:33). It is often what motivates humble, penitent obedience (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10-11a; Acts 2:36-37), which in turn is a necessary component in the formula which produces our salvation.
Asaph then wrote, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise you; the remnant of wrath you will put on like a belt” (76:10). Some translations replace “remnant” with “residue,” “remainder,” or “extremity.” The implications of this verse are thought-provoking when one considers the deep waters of the subject of God’s providence and how he works his will through the affairs of men, even the actions of men which are sinful in themselves. Asaph is basically saying that man’s wrath, whatever remains of it after stubborn rebellion against the will of God shows the futility of resisting his will, will redound to God’s glory in the end. The wrath of enemies of God such as Sennacherib, Saul of Tarsus, Pharaoh, Ahab, and others existed only for God to triumph over it at the end.
What should Judah, and by extension Christians today, take from this? “Make your vows to the Lord your God and perform them; let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be feared, who cuts off the spirit of princes, who is to be feared by the kings of the earth” (76:11-12). Jehovah is all-powerful. His might is supreme, far above the pitiful, temporary power held by earthly rulers who only rule to begin with because he wishes it (Rom. 13:1-2; cf. John 19:11; Dan. 2:21; 4:17; 5:20; Job 12:18). Ultimately, all resistance to his will is futile. Serving him in all aspects of our lives is profitable for us in every way, both in this life and in the life to come (1 Tim. 4:8). Let us therefore commit all of ourselves to God, and keep our commitments faithfully (Eccl. 5:1-5; cf. 1 John 1:6-9).